In his first post-game as Hyundai Tournament of Champions czar even Mark Rolfing seemed flummoxed by the strangest of weeks. “There is a tournament going on and all we are talking about is appendages. That was weird,” he admitted.
But if the 2011 opener was bathed in the surreal, from two-time defending champion Geoff Ogilvy’s injury-induced withdrawal to Camilo Villegas’ self-induced disqualification, those odd happenings only masked an ongoing malaise that pre-dates Rolfing and Hyundai.
With respect to champion Jonathan Byrd and the 31 other players who braved a week at the Ritz, the Tournament of Champions felt less like opening day than it did the first day pitchers and catchers report to camp. But then that’s been the story for the better part of a decade.
Rolfing lamented poor attendance despite the tournament’s decision to offer free admission, returning to a familiar theme every time the Tour ventures to Maui.
“Maybe we had to win back the trust of the community, maybe the community became disengaged with this event. I think we did make strides. I think it will be better next year and it wouldn't hurt if Tiger Woods could win a tournament,” Rolfing told the Maui News.
If, like the rest of us, the independent contractors ultimately vote with their feet Woods and Phil Mickelson have been rather clear on this. Woods, who in his defense didn’t qualify for this year’s winners-only event, last played Kapalua in 2006, while Lefty hasn’t played the opener in a decade (2001). Call it the Maui mandate.
And it wasn’t just Woods and Mickelson passing on pineapples. All total five 2010 Tour winners didn’t make the trip to Maui – Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen. Three of those five are not Tour members and are limited to 11 U.S. starts, counting The Players Championship, but that only partially explains why Kapalua has become something of an afterthought for some of the game’s top players.
That Kapalua was mentioned, not completely jokingly, as a possible candidate for “designated tournament” status when the measure was being debated last year is a testament to how one of the game’s toughest tickets has become something of a tough draw.
After the quality of golf course, the ultimate arbiter of who plays where, the second rule of successful tournament running is location, location, location. Even on your own G6 Hawaii is a haul, and it doesn’t help that fierce Kona winds and grainy greens are not exactly the soft opening some players would like.
Depending on your point of view, the real start of the 2011 season will come in three weeks at Torrey Pines where Woods and Mickelson will likely make their Tour debuts, or next week at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on the European Tour, an event that will include three of the top 4 players in the World Ranking.
Kapaula has created a nice niche on the Tour docket, a prime-time TV slot on a scenic golf course with all but a handful of those qualified making the trip. But if the event is ever going to achieve complete relevancy revolutionary steps are required.
When the tournament moved from La Costa in southern California to Hawaii in 1999 it must have seemed like the perfect marriage, but the logistics of a modern game have made an early-season hop to Hawaii awkward for some of the Tour’s titans.
A return to La Costa, which is set to undergo a $10 million facelift, would help, although two SoCal events (the Farmers Insurance Open is scheduled for later this month) so close to each other has proven to be challenging for organizers.
A better option may be co-opting an existing venue. The raucousness of TPC Scottsdale, combined with an already proposed move to effectively double the Tournament of Champions field size by giving Tour winners a two-year exemption, would add excitement; while Doral, which was converted to a WGC in 1999, offers an intriguing combination of storied golf course and geographic simplicity. Essentially, fewer excuses to skip the opener.
A move back to the mainland would also require some schedule tinkering, a reality that may be unavoidable given the circuit’s current economic headwinds.
Woods, Mickelson & Co. have increasingly refined their schedules to peak for the majors and starting your season on Jan. 1 is not exactly conducive to that end when Magnolia Lane is some four months down the road.
Beginning the season later in January would help and given the shaky ground of the Fall Series, in 2007 there were seven post-Tour Championship events compared to just four this year, a tightening of the schedule seems likely.
Whatever the answer, for 13 years the Tour has billed Kapalua as its kickoff classic but the marquee has not been entirely cooperative. Those who enjoy umbrellas in their adult beverages may not like it, but if that’s ever going to change it may be time to say aloha to a Hawaiian season opener.